Mild Ale

In the Tao of British ales, mild is the yin to bitter’s yang. For many beer styles, such as pilsner or weissbier, we can specify color, original gravity, and body, but for mild the only real definition is “not bitter.” Or perhaps we can be a little more specific: real ale, but not bitter.

For the British real ale means beer that is naturally conditioned without filtering and extra carbon dioxide used in dispensing the beer. The beer goes into the cask (cask, not keg) while still in the final stages of fermentation, and it finishes its conditioning period in the cellar of the pub where it will be served.

This has been the traditional practice in the British Isles, but it requires extra work and special expertise on the part of the brewery and the publican. In the late 1950s the larger breweries began to push kegged beers, which were filtered and force-carbonated before kegging, then served in the pub in the manner familiar to Americans: The beer was pushed out of the cask with CO2 (which, over time, dissolves in the beer and raises the carbonation level) rather than being pumped out of the cask from the bar.

Even more than bitter, apparently, mild performed poorly as a keg beer, and its place was taken by the lagers that the big breweries advertised heavily. While it retained some popularity regionally, the style was in danger of disappearing from view in the 1970s. Thankfully, the consumer group Campaign for Real Ale (commonly called CAMRA) assured that many of the smaller breweries survived and that real ale made a significant comeback.

Mild is often defined (at least in the US) as draft brown ale, but in fact milds, like bitters, vary widely from region to region and brewery to brewery. What the beers have in common is a reliance on malt rather than hops for flavor.

Michael Jackson writes that mild beer was once “a harvest-time drink, a reward for farmworkers,” and it has long been associated with working-class drinkers. Often, milds had a fairly low alcohol content and were popular lunchtime beverages for thirsty factory workers in the great industrial cities. As with bitter, however, low alcohol did not mean low flavor (something that American breweries have had a hard time understanding). Pioneering British homebrewer Dave Line noted, “Mild ale is renowned for its luscious, sweet flavour and thirst-quenching properties.”

North American homebrewers will have a tough time finding commercial examples of mild against which to judge their beer. More than most beers, mild is inherently a draft product, and cask-conditioned beers simply don’t travel here from Britain. Even visitors to Merrie Olde England will have to be in regions such as the Midlands to taste the best examples (Banks’ and Highland), but the London brewer Fuller’s has reintroduced its Hock.

In the US milds were never part of the brewing scene, but the microbrewery revival has produced a few examples. Michael Jackson mentions one from Chicago’s Goose Island brewpub and another from the Pacific Coast brewpub in Oakland, Calif. (an extract brewery). Grant’s Celtic Ale, brewed in Yakima, Wash., lays claim to being a mild, even though it is bottled. At press time the Celtic Ale was still availble, but the brewery might stop production at any time.

Although milds can range in color from pale to very dark, they generally vary from mahogany to deep brown. And while some milds can be rich in color, they are usually low gravity (1.033 to 1.036) and light bodied. Always, of course, they are low in bitterness (otherwise, they would be bitter!). Some complexity of hop flavor is appropriate, as is a complexity from the yeast. Indeed, using fruity yeasts is a particularly good plan with milds so that the lightly hopped beer doesn’t become boring.

British maltsters produce mild ale malt, which has slightly more color (3° to 4° Lovibond) than ale malt (2° to 3° Lovibond), with consequently more malt flavor. However, the mild ale malt doesn’t seem to be necessary for milds. Michael Jackson lists ingredients for some classic modern milds, all of which are brewed from ale malt, with additions of crystal and chocolate or black malt. H. Lloyd Hind’s British brewing text from the 1930s mentions the use of mild ale malt but suggests blends of pale malts, including but not limited to mild malts. He also notes the use of wheat, amber, and brown malts. It’s interesting to note that Hind’s text defines milds with original gravities ranging from 1.040 to 1.045, considerably higher than modern versions.

In traditional and modern milds, kettle sugars are common and more generally accepted than in pale ales. Naturally enough, these tend to be darker, lusher sugars with plenty of residual flavor and a contribution to color. Homebrewers have shied away from kettle sugars in the last decade or so (at least US brewers) because of the unpleasant flavors created in a lot of older recipes, but the British have known for generations that the proper use of sugar can be very useful.

In addition to providing fermentables in the wort, the impurities in sugar can provide interesting flavors in beer. Most of the sugar used in the US has been highly refined, making it less useful for brewing purposes because no impurities are available. Even brown sugar is simply refined sugar with some molasses added back in. While it is better than white sugar for beers such as milds, there are better options.

Turbinado sugar, a less refined cane sugar, is available in many health-food outlets, and some homebrew suppliers carry British sugars and syrups. Canadians have access to a version of Demarara sugar, long a favorite for British homebrewers (although the Canadian type seems darker and richer than the British from the few examples I’ve seen). Invert sugar is a very sweet and relatively expensive sugar. It is available in cake decoration and candy-supply stores. It’s possible to make invert sugar from table sugar, with heat and a mild acid solution. It’s widely used by British and Belgian brewers, both in the kettle and as primings, and available to them in a range of colors. Homebrewers can easily make do with good raw cane sugars.

Hopping rates, obviously, should be low (about 20 IBUs) and low-alpha, high-quality British hops (Fuggles, Goldings) would make the best additions. No dry hopping!

Any good British ale yeast should work beautifully, particularly one with some fruitiness or buttery-ness (diacetyl). Carbonation should be low, whether the beer is kegged (blasphemy!) or bottled (more blasphemy!). Unfortunately, few of us have the necessary equipment and knowledge to brew true cask-conditioned ales, so we will have to be satisfied with fudged versions.

Extract brewers are at no particular disadvantage in brewing milds, although as always, care should be taken to use high-quality malts. The addition of good caramel malts and moderate additions of chocolate or black malts (enough to deepen the color without adding unwanted burnt notes) will help, whether in an all-grain or an extract-based mild.

A half-pound or so of home-toasted amber malt (350° F for 90 minutes) adds a pleasant nuttiness, and commercially produced brown and amber malts are available from various homebrew suppliers. Belgian biscuit malt, while not necessarily authentic, is a useful way to add a semblance of British nuttiness to American malts (once again, for all-grain or extract).

Issue: December 1996